Planes, Trains and Automobiles

20 March 2020
Comments 6
Category Blog, News
20 March 2020, Comments 6

A Rocha UK’s Head of Conservation, Andy Lester, assesses the environmental impact of recent court decisions and the Chancellor’s budget.

On 27 February the UK Government were roundly defeated in a Court of Appeal ruling on the third runway proposal for Heathrow Airport. Local action groups and conservation organisations have hailed the landmark ruling as an incredible success story.

There is no doubt that an additional runway at Heathrow would be an unmitigated disaster – increasing carbon emissions and other pollutants and impacting air quality locally and more widely. The land taken would have been considerable too; damaging and destroying important green space and existing housing on the edge of London. Although the government has said it will not appeal the Court’s decision, Heathrow is expected to, so the battle is probably not over yet. 

Even so, the recent court decision is an example of common sense and a reminder of the power of courts to enforce UK legislation and international commitments on climate change even on the government itself. And, sadly, that is necessary since the UK government remains far, far away from being an example for others to follow on climate change or wider biodiversity loss.

Firstly HS2 – the new, hugely expensive rail link may cut commuter time by a few minutes but will destroy a significant amount of land. 108 ancient woodlands are at risk of being damaged or destroyed. So, far from improving the climate situation, it is only likely to make it worse. Simply planning new trees elsewhere is just not going to be adequate.

Secondly the recent budget, announced earlier in March, fell well short of what was hoped for in relation to the environment. In an attempt to boost and ‘level up’ the economy post-Brexit, and in the face of the Covid-19 threat, the new Chancellor Rishi Sunak reverted to ‘old style’ investment in a massive new road building programme, as well as much needed housing, at the expense of climate and wildlife.    

Rishi Sunak did have some offerings for the green lobby, for example, plans to reduce the tax benefits on “red diesel” where industry gets a tax break for diesel usage. Other plans include imposing a tax of £200 per tonne of plastic waste containing less than 30% recycled plastic and doubling green energy research to £1 billion a year. There was also a fund to boost natural solutions to flood control. Yet these green measures are tiny compared with the overall ‘dirty’ and environmentally damaging thrust of the budget.

The UK government continues to give out very mixed messages. Yes, it is significant that they won’t contest Heathrow; but they are still wedded to demolishing ancient woodlands and building roads. 

Sooner or later, in the face of the ongoing climate and species loss crisis, the UK government will need to come off the fence and make a wholehearted commitment to a much greener economy through the budget, planning and infrastructure proposals.

With the Government’s Covid-19 response closing down much of the UK economy and overturning so many previous assumptions for everyone, the period when we emerge from this dark tunnel may just provide a chance for the government to rethink.

6 responses on “Planes, Trains and Automobiles

  1. Philippa Coulson says:

    Thank you for this report, it does highlight that even in these disturbing times, where focus is rightly on the health and safety of the nation that, we still need to be vigilant to the anti climate actions and ‘dirty’ deeds of others who may get their way while our attentions are turned. Although it would appear cold to lobby/ pressure the Government at this time it would be reckless of us to be so naïve to think that big business would put their intentions aside until the Covid Crisis is calmed. We must remember that bad things happen when the good stand back and do nothing. Pray – Be Vigilant.

  2. Ann W. Thompson says:

    Thanks for this helpful summary, Andy. I believe this time gives everyone, both individuals and governments, a pause, to think through and assess our basic needs. Our God moves in mysterious ways!

  3. Ian Parker says:

    I am surprised at your opposition to HS2. Admittedly the use of ‘High Speed’ is not good environmental marketing. But the problem the rail network faces is lack of capacity, particularly between London and the Midlands. Increasing capacity gives greater reliability to passenger services, attracting people who would otherwise fly between major British cities, and opportunities to increase the volume of rail freight. Trains can be powered by green electricity; in the present state of technology planes and HGVs can’t.

  4. Evelyn Ho says:

    We should recognise that global warming and environmental degradation can result in the appearance of unknown viruses. Check out Scientifica American.

  5. Richard Balmer says:

    I share Ian Parker’s view.

  6. Philip Nalpanis says:

    I wholeheartedly endorse Ian Parker’s comment. HS2 isn’t primarily about saving “a few minutes” but about increeasing capacity on the existing West Coast Main Line (WCML), and eventually towards Sheffield, Leeds and the North-East of England, especially for inter-urban and suburban services. Upgrading the WCML is a non-starter: it’s not much more than 10 years since the huge upheaval and chaos of the last upgrade, which took 10 years; the railway (and its passengers) can ill afford the level of disruption that would be required. Longer trains (which would require significant investment to modify stations, junctions and signalling) aren’t the answer: they wouldn’t yield the increased journey opportunities as freeing up capacity would.

    And, as Ian also points out, faster rail journeys attrach people who might otherwise fly, reducing the need for domestic flights.

    What other solutions to the capacity problem are there? Widen the M1 and M6? Surely even less attractive than building HS2. Or persuade people to travel less … much less – not only for business but also for leisure. Maybe that is what Andy wants – if so, he needs to come clean about what travel he regards as acceptable in the long term.